John was 15 when a member of his Facebook group volunteered to become Britain’s “first white suicide bomber”. Another advocated attending Friday prayers at the local mosque and “slaying people where they stood”. Another wanted to firebomb the place of worship.
Ultimately, no blood was spilt. Police soon raided several homes linked to the group. John and a friend – also 15 and an adherent of far-right ideology – buried an arsenal of knives and machetes to ensure officers never found them.
John became increasingly radicalised by an online barrage of far-right disinformation. “Posts of homeless British soldiers were set against Muslim families being given free homes. Now I know the posts were all fake, but the 15-year-old me didn’t bother to fact-check.”
The worry is that John’s contemporaries won’t either. A surge of online extremism and disinformation has arrived at a time of lockdown-induced isolation, loneliness and home-schooling, creating what police call a “perfect storm”. One British far-right group has even started pushing an alternative white-supremacist school curriculum for lockdown learning.
Last week, the youngest person in the UK to commit a terrorism offence was sentenced. Only 13 when he downloaded a bomb-making manual the teenager subsequently became leader of the UK arm of a banned neo-Nazi terrorist group that glorified individuals responsible for racist mass murder.
His swift journey from lonely adolescent to UK leader of the Feuerkrieg Division is disquieting not for its uniqueness but for its part in a growing pattern.
At least 17 children, some as young as 14, have been arrested on terrorism charges over the past 18 months. A new neo-Nazi group led by a 15-year-old from Derby emerged last year. Its entire membership consisted of children. The group discussed attacking migrants in Dover and how to acquire and modify weapons.
Among the organisations monitoring the radicalisation of teenagers is the Home Office’s Commission for Countering Extremism. Sara Khan, the government’s lead commissioner for countering extremism, confirmed to the Observer that the far right was “actively and deliberately radicalising the UK’s children”. Khan, who will publish a report this month chronicling myriad failures in the government’s counter-extremism strategy, said they had identified considerable extremist content, much on unregulated platforms and propelled by algorithms that could quickly draw young minds like John’s deeper into violent extremism.
“Thousands of videos, memes, GIFs and other content promote Islamist beheading videos, neo-Nazi material advocating for ‘Jews to be gassed’, to videos celebrating the actions of terrorists such as Thomas Mair [the far-right supporter who murdered MP Jo Cox],” said Khan.
Meanwhile, new research reveals how rightwing extremists are using fresh methods to lure young recruits. Researchers for an initiative supported by the UN counter-terrorism executive directorate identified the online game creation-system Roblox as having been used by rightwing extremists to recreate playable versions of infamous far-right atrocities.
Tech Against Terrorism researchers found users being invited to roleplay Anders Breivik’s 2011 attack on the Norwegian island of Utoya, the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the 2019 terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas.
Significantly, the rapidly growing UK white-nationalist group Patriotic Alternative is actively targeting younger recruits and recently started Call of Duty Warcraft gaming tournaments for its supporters.
The most recent event was last Monday, with its players personally invited by the group’s 40-year-old founder Mark Collett, the British National party’s former director of publicity. It was held hours after the sentencing last week of the teenager who ran the British arm of a group that wanted societal collapse through terrorist violence and was itself headed by a 13-year-old Estonian known as “the Commander”.
In court, the British teenager’s lawyers touched on the complex web of emotional, economic and political factors that can leave youngsters vulnerable to radicalisation. Described as socially isolated and emotionally undeveloped, the teenager had endured a “dreadful childhood” that left him estranged from his parents.
John identifies a sense of hopelessness that left him susceptible to the messaging of the far right. Aged 15 he felt “written off” after being placed in the bottom set at school. Zero exam expectations were predicted by teachers who made it apparent his life opportunities would be dismal. The far right promised him a future.
“I was relying on the far right for a job. They were saying that when they got power they would be giving jobs to people like me,” said John.
Patriotic Alternative, whose adherents include a former activist of proscribed neo-Nazi group National Action, offers teenagers who feel school has failed them a different learning route. Tailored from “early years to key stage 4”, the home-schooling curriculum has a keen emphasis on the Anglo Saxons and sections on figures such as the Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
Critics warn that a lack of supervision over home schooling risks youngsters being exposed to extremism. The teenager who headed the UK’s Feuerkrieg Division, but cannot be named, was home-schooled by his grandparents in Cornwall.
Overt attempts by the far right to woo teenagers to its cause are rising. Patriotic Alternative has encouraged youngsters to host livestreamed “zoomer nights”, named after the “Gen Z” age-group born between the late 1990s and early 2010s. Archived footage from the anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate reveals teenagers discussing “white genocide” and fears that black and Asian minorities will become their “new masters”.
John says he also became preoccupied with the concept of a war between race and religions. “Everybody was thinking like a soldier, talking about defending our culture, standing up for our country.” His personal odyssey took him from the violence-waging private Facebook group to the far-right South East Alliance to the fascist Britain First to the virulently anti-Muslim English Defence League (EDL).
As with the start of John’s far-right journey, the internet offers teenagers a quick and simple way to push boundaries and create identity, says Patrik Hermansson of Hope not Hate.
“Young people have found a low-cost outlet to appear extreme and get disproportionate influence and fear in other members. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 13-year-old or a 30-year-old,” said Hermansson. He added: “It’s easy to dismiss as posturing but these kids do damage, they run far-right campaigns, they produce propaganda and they radicalise other kids.”
The research by Tech Against Terrorism also found that extremists used language on gaming platforms such as Roblox – which says it swiftly acts on any inappropriate content – to recruit new youngsters online.
They found that extremists used references to the computer game Minecraft or Roblox in their posts in order to hide their messages as online gaming chat.
One example, found on the social messaging app Telegram, involves a user posting comprehensive bomb-making instructions to a youngster with the message: “Hey kid, want to make a mailbox bomb for Roblox?”
Also on Telegram was a Roblox simulation of a vehicle attack against protesters, a recurrent theme of far-right memes, and a real life feature of last year’s Black Lives Matter protests in the US.
“Every day we are seeing far-right violent extremist and terrorist groups exploit youth culture, not only to evade content moderation, but also to radicalise young people themselves,” said Adam Hadley, director of Tech Against Terrorism.
He wants governments to be able to remove extra extremist rightwing content by designating more groups as terrorist organisations.
Another pressing issue is how to rescue youngsters seduced by extremism. The teenager sentenced last week received a 24-month youth rehabilitation order to help deradicalise him.
Exit UK, run by former far-right organisations who understand how hard it is to leave the scene, has received 241 requests for help since last April, shortly after the first lockdown. In 2019 the group recorded 60 enquiries.
“Offering simple answers to very difficult problems, the far right and other extremists are promoting their message of division and hate, using a challenging and lonely time, to target vulnerable individuals,” said a spokesperson.
John knows how consuming hateful ideology can be. By the time he turned 18, in 2019, he was so convinced by the far right’s messaging that he openly shared racist and anti-immigrant comments with peers at college. Proudly, he told his teacher he was an EDL and Britain First member. The college safeguarding team was notified. John responded by offering them an EDL sticker and invited them to a far-right meeting.
John was referred to the government’s counter-radicalisation programme Prevent and then Channel, which provides support and mentoring. The 20 “quotes” from the Qur’an that John believed declared war against “British people” were quickly challenged.
His mentor asked him to locate the quotes in an electronic version of the Qur’an. Only one existed “and that was dramatically out of context”.
John said: “That was the lightbulb moment – I realised I’d been lied to.” Over the next five weeks he assiduously researched and cross referenced the “facts” that upheld his far-right dogma.
“After uncovering the truth I realised that I had to break away. I didn’t want to hate Islam, I didn’t want to hate Muslims. I didn’t want to hate, full stop.”